Joe Fahrenbach gazed expectantly down the corridor of Concourse B at Richmond International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, a surgical mask over his nose and mouth as he held a dog leash in his left hand — contrasting indications of the harrowing places he’s been and the hope for better times ahead.
Fahrenbach, 30, who served in the Marines and most recently has worked as a civilian police officer at Marine Corps Base Quantico, was diagnosed last summer with leukemia. He underwent chemotherapy and then a stem cell transplant at VCU Massey Cancer Center in January. He has experienced no complications, and his recovery, he said, is going great.
It got a little greater Wednesday.
Fahrenbach, a dog handler as a military police officer in the Marines, was waiting at the airport to be reunited with Fuli, a German shepherd he worked with for three years, including a deployment in Afghanistan. At age 11 and with a variety of health problems including having lost his right eye to infection, Fuli had retired from service and needed a home.
Fahrenbach was more than willing to offer his.
“Fuli is by far the greatest dog that I’ve ever worked with,” said Fahrenbach, who hadn’t seen Fuli since January 2015 when he left Okinawa and Fuli stayed on to work with another handler. “Everything about him — his drive, his willingness to work — made going to work just so much fun.”
“We really clicked.”
However, when he got word of Fuli’s impending retirement last fall, Fahrenbach was early in his treatment and wasn’t in a position to take Fuli in. But Fuli’s retirement was delayed, and by the time the dog needed a new home, Fahrenbach was well on the road to recovery. Fuli’s previous handlers got together and agreed Fahrenbach could provide the best home and arrangements were made.
And now, at the airport, Fahrenbach waited with barely concealed excitement.
“My heart’s been pounding all morning,” Fahrenbach said as he watched.
Soon enough, Fuli came into view at the end of the long hallway, at the end of a leash held by Kristen Maurer, president of Houston-based Mission K9 Rescue, an organization that cares for retired working dogs. Sometimes that care includes reuniting with former handlers to give the dogs “the retirement they deserve,” according to the organization’s mission. This was one of those times, and Maurer was making a special delivery.
“It never gets old,” Maurer said of reuniting dogs with their handlers. “It’s emotional. These guys go through so much together that we’ll never understand. The fact they’re able to be reunited after all these years is a beautiful thing.”
And it was a beautiful thing as Fuli came down the hall after a pleasant flight on Southwest, lying next to the bulkhead, Maurer said, and moved ever closer to Fahrenbach and then clearly determined this was someone he knew. As Fahrenbach and his wife, Ashley, rubbed Fuli and loved on him, Fuli looked the part of a content dog: ears up, tongue out and tail sweeping happily behind him.
The reunion was quite a hubbub, as the Fahrenbachs and Fuli were surrounded by cameras and the curious in the terminal and later outside, after Fuli made a grateful visit to a patch of grass near the parking deck.
Joe Fahrenbach said he could tell Fuli remembered him, but he also could tell Fuli was keeping an eye on the crowd around them. After all, this is a dog who’s worked security and hunted for explosives his whole military career.
Three times, he was deployed to Afghanistan. Once, the Secret Service borrowed him to detect explosives for a papal visit.
“He’s always been very alert to everything else that’s going on,” he said. “Part of what kept other handlers and myself safe was the fact he was always alert and always looking around and is very aware of his surroundings. He’s just an awesome dog.”
Before the Fahrenbachs headed home to Fredericksburg, they expressed gratitude to Be The Match, the national marrow donor program that matched him with a German donor for a bone marrow transplant, to VCU Massey Cancer Center and to Mission K9 for taking care of Fuli for the past month and then facilitating Fuli’s delivery when they couldn’t go to him.
“Words can’t describe how grateful I am,” Joe Fahrenbach said. “I’m incredibly happy.”
Ashley called it an “honor” to be able to give Fuli a home “and take care of him and give him that couch life he so greatly deserves.”
And like the bone marrow donation that saved Joe Fahrenbach’s life, Fuli and Joe are a perfect match.
“They need each other just the same,” she said.